“Contradiction is a big part of selection,” Wallabies coach Eddie Jones said of his first training squad back in April.
“You’re always trying to find players you feel can be world class. That’s the ultimate task, to find players who can be world class.”
For context, he was speaking of Suliasi Vunivalu at the time, who was very surprisingly named in that April training squad after early-season form for Queensland that could only really be described as ‘participatory’.
And in fairness, Vunivalu’s back half of the year was significantly better, and he did score four of his six 2023 tries in the last six weeks of the season. His squad selection on Sunday for the first two games of The Rugby Championship was completely unsurprising as a result, given how much the coach has said about him since April.
But selection and contradiction are not new themes for Eddie Jones. Back in 2016 as England coach, he was criticised for not picking Danny Cipriani as a back-up option, and then was criticised again when he did pick the then in-form Wasps flyhalf to tour South Africa in 2018.
“Life is full of contradictions,” Jones said then, too.
“You media guys are allowed to be contradictory and so I’m allowed. He can add value to the squad at this stage.
“I have watched him very closely and he deserves an opportunity, because he has done things I have asked him to do in games.”
But after having broader training squads on the Gold Coast and then back in Sydney last week, the first for players not involved in the Super Rugby Pacific playoffs, the second adding Queensland and New South Wales players after they’d been knocked out, Jones gave the impression his first Wallabies squad for an actual tournament would be about trimming numbers down.
“Nah, we’re going to name small, mate,” he told Harry Jones and I in last week’s bumper edition of The Roar Rugby Podcast. “Because I don’t want this to be about selection, I want this to be about building a team that’s capable of winning a World Cup.”
“So I’ll only go with 33 and then any rehab players we have.”
In the end, he named 34, and considering there’s a trip to South Africa and back to open The Rugby Championship, before facing Argentina in Sydney less than a week later, one more player above the prescribed RWC squad size is probably neither here nor there.
He named another six players in the rehab group and later explained that probably only Samu Kerevi from that group was any chance of playing the Springboks in Pretoria on July 8. 34 could yet be 35 on the plane.
The five other rehab players will join four more not considered due to injury, that latter group including the cruelly cut-down Tom Robertson and Izack Rodda.
Among the 34 named, however, was the curious labelling of three players – uncapped pair Josh Kemeny and Dylan Pietsch, and twice-capped Ben Donaldson – not as forwards or backs, but as “utility players”.
Jones later clarified on Sunday that the modern game being so often shaped by teams going one and even two players down means that players need to be adaptable and capable of playing somewhere unexpected.
“We want Kemeny to play seven, six and play on the wing,” Jones explained of the Melbourne Rebels backrower. “He’s quick enough to play on the wing. That’s why he’s down as a utility player.”
“We need to develop a team that’s multidimensional because of the fact that with red cards, yellow cards, you need to be able to adapt on the field. So, nothing’s not possible and we need to develop that adaptability in the team. We’re creating the structure of the team that will take us to the World Cup and we need a backrower who can play wing.
“I’m serious about this,” he reiterated, in a moment that instantly added more weight to the “nah, we’ll go with a seven-one bench” remark that Harry and I laughed loudly at last week.
“Don’t laugh,” he told us on the pod. I don’t think we can anymore.
And I do get the thinking around adaptability. It does make some sense. Backrowers probably do need to be ready to – and certainly train so that they can – play wing. Backs will almost certainly have to pack onto the side of the scrum, and will need to show more idea about doing that than so many famously have not.
But either way, they can all learn these new skills while carrying the traditional old ‘forward’ or ‘back’ labels that they still clearly are. Kemeny isn’t going to start a Test on the wing and Dylan Pietsch is not going to be named in the no.6. Ben Donaldson definitely isn’t either.
Selection can be contradictory, but it doesn’t have to be nonsense.
And having named 44 players now, a further 28 players were named in an additional “Train-on Squad”, presumably to take in the new Wallabies methods while also gearing up for the sole Australia A clash this season, against Tonga in Nuku’alofa on July 14.
The ‘A’ squad was similarly split into forwards, backs, and with Seru Uru named as a utility player.
That match will aid Tonga’s RWC preps, but will also mark the 50th anniversary of the famous Ikale Tahi victory over the Wallabies at Ballymore in 1973.
So in all, a total of 72 players were named on Sunday, across the Wallabies squad, the attached rehab group, the injury list, and the additional train-on squad. It’s not quite every second Super Rugby player in Australia, but it’s not far off.
And it certainly shades the weirdly criticised 44-man squad Dave Rennie named for mostly logistics purposes in his final days back in January. So much for naming small, I suppose.
It does highlight a few things, however.
Firstly, that the Wallabies coach knows he can’t just rely on club rugby and send excess players back home for a run in 1st Grade. Not in a World Cup year. The players wearing their club gear last week was all about the feels and the connection, but it might also represent the only time they touch their club kit this season. And that must thrill the Wallabies’ kit supplier, but that’s probably another story for another day.
Secondly, it shows that Jones is prepared to cast the net as far wide as he needs to, to find the players he needs to best fit into his game plan for France. That could mean he hasn’t found them all yet and wants to keep looking, and it could also mean he’s not completely sold on his final 33 for the RWC.
The suggestion last week that Barbarians games later in the year could feature a heavy Australian flavour certainly indicates Jones wants to keep his options open. I wonder how many European injury cover deals he’s currently working on for fringe players?
It also suggests that Eddie Jones will do frankly whatever he feels he needs to, to build a squad he feels is capable of winning a World Cup.
Even if that means doing the opposite of what he’s said in the build-up.